Localities turn to K Street for protection, fear federal budget tightening

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Ears to the ground

The recent history of earmarking process, which peaked at about 1 percent of the federal budget, is riddled with instances of the well-connected bringing disproportionate amounts of money home for pet projects, some of which were unnecessary.

Yet its elimination took with it one of the few ways a large, distant national government could be responsive to individual locales’ needs.

“Members thought the crunch point between making a decision about a local issue and getting it done was the bureaucrat,” Mr. Simon said.

Now small-town governments such as Dearborn County, Ind., which hired a lobbyist last month, are finding themselves in a position ordinarily associated with those with an image problem and money to burn, like oil companies.

They join a growing cohort of public bodies that, as if disillusioned or frustrated with official channels, have taken to tactics that seem to speak to distance and disconnect.

Indeed, the pioneers of privatized intragovernment interaction, and those still most dependent on it, are the redheaded stepchildren of the republic, the U.S. territories. Puerto Rico, which lacks a voting representation in Congress, has spent up to $5 million annually on a handful of K Street lobbying firms.

Next on the list of top spenders on Washington lobbyists in the first half of this year are budget-strapped California’s Orange and Los Angeles counties, at about half a million dollars each, and Chicago.

The Virgin Islands, with an area about twice the size of the District of Columbia, immediately follows on the list of more than 1,000 state and local governments.

“The lobbyists and I sit down and put our heads together and figure out what are you going to do and what am I going to do?” said Donna Christensen, the Virgin Islands’ delegate in the House. In many cases, lobbyists may have closer relationships with lawmakers on key committees than even a region’s congressional representative, she said.

The federal government forbids lower levels of government from using money received directly from the federal Treasury to lobby it for more, but does not otherwise restrict it. Congress was concerned enough about the growing phenomenon, however, that as part of a 2007 ethics reform package it required lobbyists to clearly disclose whether their client is a taxpayer-funded entity. Years later, nearly half of local governments’ lobbying disclosures regularly fail to do so, The Washington Times found.

When Mr. Simon gives miniature civics lessons to foreign delegations, localities’ unofficial and uneven representation is regarded with bafflement.

“You’d start explaining that cities come to Washington to advocate for their own best interests, and they’d look at each other and then look at you as if to say, ‘What are you, crazy?’ ” he said. “But we’re America and we have this unusual sort of wide-open, anyone-can-play system.”

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